Wednesday, 14 April 2010


Friedrich Nietzsche was the first great philosopher after Darwin. Born in 1844 in Saxony, Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor. His philosophy was influenced by his Protestant religious upbringing and can be viewed as an attempt to find a way towards a new synthesis of Protestant Christianity with its belief in the heroic individual and classical paganism with its worship of the primordial power of nature.

Nietzsche took seriously the intellectual consequences of Darwin's evolutionary theories. In the Origin of Species, Darwin had claimed that humans, rather than being created in God's image, were in fact the evolutionary cousins of monkeys and apes. For Nietzsche this was devastating news. Rather than the universe being made for humans by God humans were now alone in a universe without any real significance at all.

Nietzsche’s whole philosophy can be seen as an attempt to answer this one question. How do we live in world without something (a God), that guarantees that life has meaning and purpose? In 1882 Nietzsche announced that is 'God is dead' and so began his long philosophical quest to find a non-religious answer to this question and to escape the feelings of despair and insignificance that followed his loss of faith in Christianity. This condition, what Nietzsche termed nihilism or the belief that everything is meaningless, was for Nietzsche the chief philosophical problem facing people in the modern world today.

Nietzsche was also, along with Karl Marx, one of the chief prophets of the modern age. He accurately predicted that life in the twentieth century would be a perilous time; in a world without God, people would follow anyone or anything that offered them some sense of personal significance in universe increasingly perceived to be devoid of any. The twentieth century would be, for Nietzsche, the age of the 'pale criminal'; the false prophet of who offers salvation but manipulates people to their doom. In the light of the atrocities committed by Hitler and Stalin, this is a truly remarkable prediction.

Nietzsche warned of the dangers that lay ahead in the future and urged us not to let them happen. But he harbored little faith in the abilities of the majority of ‘ordinary people’ and so, unlike Marx, denied that any hope for a better future lay with the proletariat. Like many German philosophers, he was something of an elitist and perceived the bulk of humanity as being rather like cattle; a mob who follow a ‘herd morality’. In contrast to the herd, there are, according to Nietzsche, a few ‘great men’ who can rise above the bovine world of common folk. These men live according their own values rather than follow those imposed by others and Nietzsche thought that if we are to avoid the horrors of nihilism we will all have to live like these great men and create our own values for ourselves. Nietzsche thought he was such a ‘great man’ - or übermensch - and believed that his philosophy would save future humanity from the horrors of nihilism.

Nietzsche's philosophy states that in a world without God-given values it is necessary to be creative and invent new values and new ways of living. For Nietzsche, then, the highest form of human life is art and the great artist is the true saviour of humanity. Nietzsche's philosophy is hence both egoistic, in that it values heroic individuals, and aestheticist, in that it values the artist's ability to create things from nothing.

Nietzsche attempted to invent a new kind of life-affirming spirituality based upon the worship of the Greek God of wine and intoxication - Dionysus. This form of spirituality would oppose life-denying and other-worldly forms of Christian spirituality. In his view, instead of allowing individuals to celebrate life Christianity made people hate themselves and hate life! In fact, Nietzsche believed the Christian worship of a dead God – who Nietzsche termed ‘the crucified’ - to be the major obstacle in the way of the attempt to ‘transvalue all values’; that is to rethink the nature of morality so that a new ethic of art and life could be liberated from religion's grasp.

Nietzsche increasingly came to see himself as a kind philosophical saint and he wrote the strange and aphoristic Also Sprach Zarathustra as a kind of ‘anti-bible’. This work amounts to an aestheticist answer to the New Testament. Here, Nietzsche tells the story of the hermit Zarathustra who decides to ‘go down’ from his mountain retreat into the world of ordinary mortals. He then decides to preach his new gospel, that man must be overcome and that we should all prepare for the immanent arrival of the übermensch.

By the late 1880s, Nietzsche started to believe that he was the first living example the übermensch and, partly as a consequence, his mind started to crack. He spent the last ten years of his life insane with only his mother to care for him. His death in 1900 marked the end of philosophical romanticism.

Neil Turnbull

1 comment:

  1. But belief in God had vanished long before Nietzsche. It was just not something officially admitted.

    Goethe was no believer. Cervantes wasn't either. Nietzsche himself said that Catholicism had been on the point of turning into a happy fiesta of polytheism, but Luther spoiled the party.

    Goethe had also started to formulate a theory of evolution. He said that his scientific views would outlast his poetry.